Review – Comedians, Lyric Hammersmith

Tuesday 13 October 2009

124508552361‘Eres a funny thing…

Have you heard the one about the two old bloggers who dragged themselves over to the Lyric Hammersmith to see a revival of Comedians, with the heaviest of hearts having read Trevor Griffiths‘ play has a running time of 3 hours?

And they didn’t look at their watches once.

Well, that’s a bit of a cheat really since Sean Holmes‘ production has a clock on stage which alarmingly shows real time – a risky move with a long three act play (or, even apparently one half that length in the case of Alistair McGowan’s Timing), but it at least meant Andrew wouldn’t be constantly tugging on Phil’s wrist.

Griffiths’ 1975 play, which is a bit of as timepiece itself, has a pleasingly straightforward construction: Act 1 has 6 aspiring working-class comedians trying to learn their craft under the tutorship of Eddie Waters (Matthew Kelly) in a Manchester evening class. Act 2 shows them performing their acts and Act 3 receiving a critique and (for some of them) earning contracts from an agent (Lily’s dad Keith Allen).

According the programme, Comedians has been translated into 20 languages and produced worldwide, facts which the Whingers found quite astonishing. Not becuase it’s not good, but because you would think that if you aren’t familiar with the Northern Comedy Club circuit or 70’s TV shows like Comedians or The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, you might – like WebCowGirl who was also there the same night – find youself at a bit of a loss. You might find it dated and simply find the jokes racist and offensive (as they are intended to be). Or you might, like both Whingers, be absolutely gripped, challenged, provoked into thinking and reflecting and have a terrific time.

This is Sean Holmes’ first production as director since taking over as Artistic Director at the Lyric Hammersmwith and this is an impressively polished and assured debut as far as we are concerned (apparently he had a practice run a few years ago with a pre-Dr Who David David Tennant!). He has assembled a sterling and somewhat eclectic cast (there’s even a League of Gentlemen alumnus in the form of Reece Shearsmith). It would be unfair to single out any particular performances.

But when has that ever stopped us? So, firstly, we were very pleased finally to get to see Matthew Kelly on stage. He used to be a genial TV host in Stars In Their Eyes and before that – as Winnie puts it – was on that programme where he came down steps laughing.  Then suddenly he was a top class West End actor fêted for his Oliver-winning Lennie in Of Mice And Men, Victory at the Arcola and George in the recent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. For some reason the Whingers managed to miss all of these so it was nice to see someone we regard as a bit of a hero on the quiet and he didn’t disappoint us.

Andrew was also very impressed with Mark Benton who plays Ged Murray, one half of the sibling double act that’s doomed to failure.

Comedians was the play that made a star out of Jonathan Pryce and if there’s any justice it should do the same for Twiggy’s son* David Dawson who plays Gethin Price, the would-be comic with a radically different approach to comedy. He already stood out in Act 1 but when he performs his bizarre, surreal, mime/”comedy” in Act 2 he’s mesmerising, even more incredible really as what he’s doing could have misfired horribly and been very embarrassing to watch.

Strangely, we know some people who couldn’t stomach this and were aching for it to end. But for the Whingers’ money this is one classy production with some outstanding performances. And if we can sit and watch a production without any women in it (let alone a Dame) and a clock ticking on stage for nigh on three hours then, let’s face it, it really must have something to it.


* For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, David Dawson is always referred to by the Whingers as “Twiggy’s son”. He isn’t, as far as we know. We just call him that. Hope that clears up any misunderstanding. Thank you.


9 Responses to “Review – Comedians, Lyric Hammersmith”

  1. Peter Says:

    Dear Whingers,

    I absolutely agree with your review. After ‘Punk Rock’ I expected another good production from Sean Holmes, and ‘Comedians’ does not disappoint. For someone new to the play, it’s difficult to believe it dates from the 70’s because it comes over as totally fresh. David Dawson is absolutely extraordinary. You say some people couldn’t stomach his surreal perforance in Act 2, but when I saw it (on Friday) the audience was rivetted and aghast and there was total awed silence.

    The other performances in Act 2 were pretty awful in various ways as they are supposed to be. The one with the two brothers managed to combine ‘going wrong’ as part of the act, and partly actually going wrong. The Jewish act, Simon Kunz as Sammy Samuels, showed very well how totally tasteless stand-up comedy could be in those days (can be now too, of course). As we went out for the interval I heard someone remark, in pompous politically correct manner, ‘It’s extraordinary that people can still laugh at jokes like that.’ He didn’t seem to understand that we, the audience, were playing two parts, being at the same time the audience for the comedian’s performance within the play, and the audience for the play itself. So one can allow oneself to be part of the non PC club audience and laugh at a joke about a ‘Paki rapist’ and as PC as one may wish as part of the theatre audience, and be disgusted by the same joke.

    By the way, it is very worthwhile looking at the BBC2 ‘Play for Today’ production directed by Richard Eyre in 1979 with Jonathan Pryce as Gethin Price and Bill Fraser as Eddie Walters (the Matthew Kelly role in the Lyric production). It’s on U-Tube with rather poor picture quality, but good enough to watch. A totally different cast, of course, which changes some perceptions of the characters, but that is broadly neutral. Jonathan Pryce and David Dawson give similar performances as Gethin Price, both with enormous power and energy. I suppose the current cast and director must have studied the Richard Eyre film, but how the influence works, providing a stimulus to imitate, or improve on or react against, I don’t know. The film is more tightly constructed and in comparison with the play at the Lyric the club performance scenes are rather condensed so that Sammy Samuel’s turn comes across as neatly delivered, which is against the text. It seems to me that Act Three in the film is darker, more powerful, convincing and meaningful than in the stage play, but both versions are superb and they don’t detract from one another.


  2. […] the way. While I was too culturally confused to be able to see it in the big stars and lights the West End Whingers did, I’d definitely say this is a show worth […]

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Hi Peter, don’t know who you are but per an old guy who saw the show when it was new, the audiences actually didn’t laugh at the jokes in act 2 – because they weren’t funny.

  4. sandown Says:

    The audience at a working-men’s club or variety performance is very different from an audience in the subsidised theatre, then as now.

    The modern-day type of “politically correct” comedy is mainly to be found in subsidised venues, whether broadcasting (the BBC and Channel 4) or live performance, and is largely maintained at the taxpayer’s expense. These are the kind of comedians for whom it is sufficient to utter the words “Margaret Thatcher” of “George Bush” to generate sycophantic sniggers from the studio audience.

    The character in this play who engages in a class-war rant directed at a pair of well-dressed dummies is an early example of the type.

  5. sandown Says:

    BBC Comedy Staff Memo : for “George Bush” please substitute “Bullingdon Club”, in all future rants.

  6. An U Bis Says:

    Far be it for me to correct the Whingers but Comedians will not transfer to Manchester and wasn’t a joint production with The Royal Exchange , unlike Punk Rock. Mr Griffiths’ work really is one of the best plays of the 20th century but it might be a bit complicated for the theatrical patrons of Bernard Manning’s home town.

  7. don Says:

    The laughter from some of the theatre audience when the various comedians did their turns in Act Two has become controversial. We even have the Sunday Telegraph reviewer saying that after the second act he “left feeling profoundly depressed and sullied. This production should be halted immediately: it is an abomination”

    I agree with Peter that it is surely part of the production that the theatre audience should as it were play the part of the rough bingo hall club audience. In fact, unless I am very much mistaken there were one or two audience members ‘planted’ by the director to react to the various disastrous turns and create the right atmosphere. This prepares us for the final act. As Peter suggested, I looked up the Richard Eyre TV production on U-Tube and there the producer includes audience noise in Act two: how otherwise can the distinction be made between what takes place in the schoolroom (seen by the theatre audience) and the performance in the bingo hall (where the theatre audience sees it as seen by the club audience)?

    Peter says that he heard complaints that the jokes were unfunny. Of course they aren’t! That is the point of the play. When I was there, people weren’t complaining, still less walking out as the Sunday Telegraph reporter says they did. The attentive (one might almost say respectful) reception of Act three showed that the audience had a far better understanding of Peter Griffiths’s classic play than some of those who have been writing about this splendid new production.

  8. don Says:

    Sorry, Trevor Griffiths not ‘Peter Griffiths’!!

  9. […] production, Sean Holmes, emphasised this with a clock in full view of the audience, which could have been risky for a less accomplished play or […]

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